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Meier-Graefe, Julius

    Full Name: Meier-Graefe, Julius

    Other Names:

    • Julius Meier-Graefe

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 10 June 1867

    Date Died: 05 June 1935

    Place Born: Banat, Romania

    Place Died: Vevey, Vaud, Switzerland

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): Modern (style or period)


    Modernist art historian and reformer of art history. Meier-Graefe was the son of, Edward Meier, a civil engineer for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Marie Graefe, (d. 1867) who died giving birth to him. He was born in Pesitza, Banat, Hungary [formerly Austro-Hungarian Empire; which is present-day Banat, Romania. The family moved to the Rhineland area of Germany; Meier-Graefe grew up near Düsseldorf, gaining his Abitur in 1879. As an adult, he added his mother’s name to his in her memory. He married Clotilde Vitzthum von Eckstädt, related to the future art historian Georg Vitzthum von Eckstädt. Under pressure from his father he initially studied engineering in Munich in 1888, spending a semester in Zürich (1889) and then at Lüttich. He traveled to Paris the same year to see the World’s Fair, intent on becoming a fiction writer. By 1890 he was back in Germany, in Berlin, studying art history under Herman Grimm. He also heard lectures by the cultural sociologist and art writer Georg Simmel (1858-1918), the philosopher Moritz Lazarus (1824-1903), the historian Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896) and the social economist Adolf Wagner (1835-1917). Leaving Berlin without receiving a degree, he published two novellas, Ein Abend bei Laura and Nach Norden, 1890 and 1893, both published by the illustrious Fischer Verlag. Meier-Graefe frequented the Berlin intelligencia, whose ranks included the writers Otto Julius Bierbaum (1865-1910), Stanislaw Przybyszewski (1868-1927), the poet Richard Dehmel (1863-1920), the philosopher August Strindberg (1849-1912) and Edvard Munch. Meier-Graefe’s first art criticism was reviewing Munch’s work. In 1894, he, Meier-Graefe, helped found the cultural periodical Pan, acting as its art editor. The periodical attracted original graphics by important artists (including Toulouse-Lautrec) and art-historical writing by Eberhard Freiherr von Bodenhausen, Harry Klemens Ulrich Kessler and Wilhelm Bode. However, Meier-Graefe was dismissed after the initial issue by the magazine’s wealthy backers because of the lack of attention to German artists. He returned to Paris in 1895 where he began his own avant-garde art journal, Dekorative Kunst, in 1898. The magazine publicized the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) style. The following year, Meier-Graefe opened La Maison Moderne, a gallery devoted to art nouveau works, with the artist Henry van de Velde. In 1902 he was commissioned to write on French Impressionism by the art historian Richard Muther for Muther’s pocket-sized surveys of art, the Klassische Illustratoren series and the Sammlung illustrierter Monographien. The first volume was Edouard Manet und sein Kreis. His gallery closed in 1903 and he returned to Berlin to write his ground-breaking history of modern art, Die Entwicklungsgeschichte der modernen Kunst (The Developmental History of Modern Art). Meier-Graefe opposed valuing art based upon nationalism or the criteria of the academy. In his 1905 book Der Fall Böcklin und die Lehre von den Einheiten (The Case of Böcklin and the Teaching of Unity), Meier-Graefe pointed out how lacking in modernity the popular Swiss artist was compared to the truly avant-garde of France. The book caused a furor, touching chords of nationalism and a particularly vitriolic attack by Henry Thode (and met with an equally powerful rebuttal by the painter Max Liebermann). He returned to French art and the work of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Courbet as well as the Impressionists. In 1910, he published his book Spanische Reise (Spanish Journey) which again broke ground with an analysis, sometimes described as a “rediscovery” of El Greco. While others, such as William Stirling Maxwell had written favorably of El Greco previously, Meier-Graefe described El Greco as an Expressionist artist. Meier-Graefe’s commitment to the primary sources of art history led him to translate Delacroix’s journals into German in 1912. However–and ironically–German Expressionism itself repelled him. In 1915 he volunteered in the German army on the Eastern front where he was captured and interned in a Russian POW camp in 1916. After his release, he divorced his first wife in 1917 and married Helene Lienhardt, settling in Dresden. Together with the art historian Wilhelm Hausenstein, he edited the art-history yearbook, Ganymede, beginning in 1919. He moved to Berlin in 1921, occupying a house designed by architect and architectural historian Hermann Muthesius. In 1922, he wrote a biography of van Gogh, titled Vincent. Of van Gogh, Meier-Graefe characterized his art as addressing the alienation modernity. Meier-Graefe’s embrace of most modern art drew the ire of national socialism in Germany. He moved to France in 1930 for health reasons, resulting in permanent exile by the rise of Nazism in 1933. The Nazi’s included him, one of the few art historians, in their attack on “Degenerate Art,” (Entartete Kunst). Die Entwicklungsgeschichte is a key writing in the history of modern art historiography. Meier-Graefe created a history of art for the nineteenth century, relating artists from Delacroix to Cézanne into a continuum, which had never been done before. Die Entwicklungsgeschichte traced nineteenth-century art through the conception of artistic impulses (das Bildhafte) as opposed to economic or historical forces in art. He was the first to conceive the modern era of art as a series of formal problems solved on the canvas. His books were quickly translated into English and his writings accessible to an English-reading public. John Rewald characterized Meier-Graefe as influential for French modernist art historians, an art historian uninterested in scholarship or “library research,” (“The French learned…from Meier-Graefe,” he wrote). Meier-Graefe could never shake off the reputation of being anti-German, however. His attempts to show the work of Böcklin as reactionary resulted in an understandable backlash (see Adolf Grabowsky book, below). His failure to embrace twentieth-century art forms (Cubism, German Expressionism) was particularly tragic and raised the ire of at least Emil Nolde, who branded him an “enemy to German art.” At sixtieth birthday in 1927, shortly before hostilities against him would again foment, tributes poured out from personalities as different as the playwright Gerhart Hauptmann (1862-1946) and the art historian Emil Waldmann.

    Selected Bibliography

    [complete bibliography:] Moffet, Kenworth. Meier-Graefe as Art Critic. Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1973; Entwicklungsgeschichte der modernen Kunst: vergleichende Betrachtung der bildenen Künste, als Beitrag zu einer neuen Aesthetik. 3 vols. Stuttgart: J. Hoffmann, 1904, English, Modern Art: Being a Contribution to a New system of æsthetics. London: W. Heinemann/New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1908; Der Fall Böcklin und die Lehre von den Einheiten. Stuttgart: J. Hoffmann, 1905; [example of Klassische Illustratoren series] William Hogarth. Munich: R. Piper & Co., 1907; Hans von Marées: sein Leben und sein Werk. 3 vols. Munich: R. Piper, 1909-1910; Spanische Reise. Berlin: S. Fischer, 1910, English, The Spanish Journey. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927; [example of Sammlung illustrierter Monographien series] Auguste Renoir: mit hundert Abbildungen. Munich: R. Piper & Co., 1911; translated, Delacroix, Eugène. Literarische Werke. Leipzig, Insel-Verlag, 1912; Cézanne und sein Kreis: ein Beitrag zur Entwicklungsgeschichte. Munich: R. Piper, 1918; edited, with Hausenstein, Wilhelm. Ganymed: Jahrbuch für die Kunst. vols. 1-5. Munich: R. Piper & Co/Verlag der Marées-Gesellschaft, 1919-1925. Vincent. Munich: R. Piper, 1922, English, Vincent van Gogh, a biographical study. London/Boston: The Medici Society Ltd., 1922; Eugène Delacroix, Beiträge zu einer Analyse. Munich: R. Piper, 1922; Pyramide und Tempel: Notizen während einer Reise nach ägypten, Palästina, Griechenland, und Stambul. Berlin: E. Rowohlt, 1927, English, Pyramid and Temple. New York: Macaulay Co., 1930.


    [reaction to Meier-Graefe’s Böcklin’s book:] Grabowsky, Adolf. Der Kampf um Böcklin. Berlin: S. Cronbach, 1906; Moffet, Kenworth. Meier-Graefe as Art Critic. Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1973; Rewald, John. “The William C. Seitz Collection.” Art Journal 37, no. 1 (Autumn, 1977): 49; Belting, Hans. The End of the History of Art? 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 37; Belting, Hans. “Nachwort.” Entwicklungsgeschichte der modernen Kunst. Munich: R. Piper, 1987; Kultermann, Udo. The History of Art History. New York: Abaris, 1993, pp. 153-156; Metzler Kunsthistoriker Lexikon: zweihundert Porträts deutschsprachiger Autoren aus vier Jahrhunderten. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1999, pp. 262-5, 278; “Julius Meier-Graefe: Autobiographische Skizze.” in Krahmer, Catherine, and Grüninger, Ingrid. Kunst ist nicht für Kunstgeschichte da: Briefe und Dokumente. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2001, pp. 11-17; Breitschmid, Markus. “Biographical Information.” in, Meier-Graefe, Julius. A Modern Milieu. Backsburg, VA: Virginia Tech Architecture Pblications, 2007, pp. 69-73.


    "Meier-Graefe, Julius." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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